Michael Brown: Coalition loyalty beats party loyalty

If the Tory-Lib Dem partnership achieves its economic objectives, it is hard to see its architects separating for the sake of an artificial general election dogfight

Sunday 23 October 2011 03:03

Last week I returned to my old stamping ground as the guest of honour at a combined victory party for the Brigg and Goole and Cleethorpes Tory MPs who had regained these two constituencies at the general election. They had avenged my defeat by Labour in 1997 and were generous in inviting me to share their triumphs. Listening to the personal experiences of Andrew Percy and Martin Vickers as they regaled us with the excitements of the past 12 weeks took me back down memory lane, to when I enjoyed similar moments during the summer of 1979.

So far, neither MP has had to face the challenges which will inevitably cloud their current state of euphoria and I urged both to treasure the present and not to worry, yet, about the future. Far too many politicians obsess about their ability to win the subsequent election before the previous campaign posters have been removed from the committee room windows. This means they go through political careers, long or short, never "enjoying" any job satisfaction.

Similarly I have never observed a new prime minister so "enjoying" the role as obviously as David Cameron. His immediate predecessor never appeared, outwardly at least, to relish a single day in the highest office – and it is probably only now that Gordon Brown is able to look back with pleasure on the many happy moments there must have been while he was the occupant of No 10.

Tony Blair clearly enjoyed his time in office but his every waking moment, during his first term, was spent obsessing about winning the subsequent election in 2001. John Major appeared care-worn and grey within moments of taking over from Margaret Thatcher. And while the great lady relished every day as prime minister, her constant state of readiness for battle probably overwhelmed any sense of personal pleasure.

Mr Cameron's obvious ability to wear the cares of office refreshingly lightly suggests that he may be the first prime minister for many generations whose mission is greater than devoting every day to the needs of the next election. This is not, for one moment, to suggest that he does not wish to remain prime minister beyond the current five-year term. In theory, his dream should be to secure an outright Tory victory in 2015, removing from himself the shackles of the Liberal Democrats in order to pursue all the policies he had to sacrifice when the coalition agreement was formed in May. In practice, I suspect that such a victory could turn out to be his darkest nightmare.

For those of us who derive our dubious living trying to predict the political weather, wondering if the coalition will survive the full term – working out whether the Lib Dems will implode – the new politics pose huge difficulties. We have still not fully come to terms with the magnitude of the events of the past three months. We look for every opportunity to work out how it will end – and we assume that it will all end in tears.

Yet every potential difficulty for the coalition looks like making its endurance more likely. As Tory backbenchers of the David Davis "Brokeback" tendency get progressively restive, so Lib Dems will similarly ponder their own future – especially in the event that the referendum on the voting system is lost next year. But somehow I am not sure that either Mr Cameron or Nick Clegg are particularly concerned about such possible developments. While it is true that the promise of a referendum on the alternative vote (AV) was the ultimate deal-maker, defeat on this issue will not be a deal-breaker.

The fact is that Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg have a loyalty to the Coalition which transcends their loyalties to their parties – and this is the foundation upon which their relationship with the British public will be forged. Down the political generations, successive single-party governments have foundered because the prime minister of the day has been perceived to put party before government and country. The poll tax was a classic case. Mrs Thatcher was determined to create a fairer local government finance system because "our people" – ie Tory voters - were saddled with the burden of rates. But whatever the iniquities of the old rating system the poll tax failed because it was seen as a crass attempt to benefit Tory supporters.

Of course there are pet Tory party projects that have survived the coalition agreement. But the fact that they have been signed off by the Lib Dems means that the Coalition can make an easier case that its partisan legislation is somehow "in the public interest". If the polls are a guide, it is clear that this is the reason why the Lib Dems, as a separate party, may suffer at the next general election. But just as Mr Cameron is not overly obsessed about Tory electoral prospects, so Mr Clegg will not spend every day between now and polling day worrying about his own electoral future.

For the Deputy Prime Minister, whose party did worse than under Charles Kennedy, this is as good as it will ever get. With huge influence, and all the trappings of Whitehall, why should a 43-year-old holder of this office, only elected as a backbench MP five years ago in a third party in opposition, continually obsess about his personal long-term future? And why should any "bump and scrape" along the way cause Mr Clegg to want to sacrifice all that he has now?

The same applies to other Lib-Dem ministers, including Vince Cable. The great sage in charge of the Department for Business is 67 years old. With good health he is virtually guaranteed a place in Cabinet at least until his 72nd birthday. Much has been made of his supposed discomfort in the Coalition. That certainly did not come across to me a few weeks ago when we bumped into each other in a TV studio. Dr Cable picked up, early on, the public's willingness to buy into the Coalition rather more than it tolerates party politics.

Churchill's war-time coalition government certainly did not have any objective other than to defeat the German enemy. That coalition disbanded immediately its objective was achieved. The challenge for the present Coalition is to fathom a method whereby it can seek re-election without having to resort to the parts of its sum. So far no one in either party can, or is willing to think that far ahead. But the ConservativeHome website recently suggested that grassroots Tories are willing to countenance the possibility of "Coalition" candidates in certain circumstances. It seems inconceivable that the Tories could credibly oppose Dr Cable or Mr Clegg and others in the Lib-Dem part of the coalition.

If the Coalition succeeds in achieving its economic objectives it is hard to see the principal architects separating for the sake of an artificial general election dogfight. How, for example, would the three-way television debate be conducted? It is natural for Tory voters and Lib-Dem voters to want to be able to vote for their respective parties. But there may be millions who may want to vote, for or against, the totality of the coalition. Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg may yet also want to offer that choice – but in the meantime they are clearly intent on relishing their present opportunities while leaving the future to the pundits.


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